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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Negotiating the Past: The making of memory in South Africa
Edited by Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee

(Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1998)
300pp. Index. Pb.: 14.99; ISBN 0-19-571503-9



Examining the ways in which South Africans choose to remember their conflicted past through the process of negotiating memory and 'truth', this book grapples with the ways in which a created history may either prevent or renew a cycle of future violence. In shaping these public/ private post-conflict identities, the authors try to answer the vital questions: 'Who were we when we fought?'; 'Who are we now that we've stopped?'; and, 'How can we stop ourselves from repeating it in the future?'.

Divided into four sections, the first; 'Truth, memory, narrative', includes essays by the writers, academics, and poets addressing the value and limitations of the TRC. Njabulo Ndebele argues that the horrific surrealism of apartheid surpasses any attempt to find meaning for it other than through narratives that may have less to do with facts themselves than with their recall and 'revelation of meaning through [their] imaginative combination'. (p.21) Andre Brink insists that it is the way we think about the past that 'poses the conditions for the future'. (p.33)

In section II, 'The remembered self', the editors and others wrestle with the complexities and tensions inherent in depicting autobiographical and collective identity. Carli Coetzee questions an interesting historic twist as she describes a recent trend among Afrikaners to link to an African identity by reclaiming their connection to a widowed African Khoikhoi woman named Krotoa who had had two children by a Danish surgeon in 17th century Cape Town. They were taken from her, she was banished to Robben Island, and her mixed race children were raised as 'white' to become now newly acknowledged 'founding members of many Afrikaner families'. (p.112)

The contributors to Section III, 'Museums, memorials, and public memory' discuss the institutional challenges of interpreting the past. Patricia Davison describes museums as 'mirrors of power' mediating the past, present and future in 'authorized versions' of that past that 'involves both remembering and forgetting, inclusion and exclusion'. (p.145) In the final Section, 'Inscribing the past', the authors, address the 'shortness of memory', the consumer marketing of formerly significant political rhetoric, and the 'new language policy' of the New Constitution. (p.12)

In my opinion, this collection of essays would be a solid addition to the reference library of anyone interested in contemporary attempts to rebuild an individual and collective identity after conflict. Quoted, but unfortunately not included as a contributor, Mahmood Mamdani's warning that 'in the aftermath of conflict, healing is not a foregone conclusion', resonates as the cautionary theme throughout this book. (p.71)


Marcia Byrom Hartwell
University of Oxford




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